On Claiming Romero

It is early morning on this day of Romero’s beatification, 35 years after his assassination. The hundreds or perhaps thousands of government posters throughout the city proudly claim Romero as El Salvador’s martyr. There is a certain emotional ambivalence that comes when the state is a key agent in the celebration of a martyr who was killed by the state. Yes, it may have been a different set of government agents and a different political party, but nonetheless, the state. Of course, to emphasize that Romero was killed simply by the state may force an artificial distinction between those who may have been following a government order to shoot and kill and the rest of us who claim to have had no part in this assassination. While certainly most of us are not directly implicated in Romero’s death, we may ask ourselves to what degree we are complicit in a system that continues to subjugate all who do not fit into the acceptable margins of society—margins that Romero challenged by speaking out against governments and those with power.

The government claims Romero, the “left” and “right” church claims Romero, the rich and poor claim Romero, and whole generations of Salvadorans and those who have come from abroad claim Romero. For example, I find it curious that on this particular day of his beatification some would choose to highlight Romero’s relationship with Opus Dei (see article in Zenit)—clearly a way of Opus Dei claiming Romero in what may otherwise be seen as a victory for the more progressive church. Surely there is nothing wrong in any of us wishing to claim Romero, whether we are members of Opus Dei or “members” of a “progressive” church, whether we are rich or whether we are poor, whether we are a representative of the U.S. government, or whether we are the vice-president of Cuba who briefly visited Romero’s tomb while I was there yesterday afternoon. But if we wish to claim Romero, we must be careful, because the spirit of Romero, a man who seems to have been ever more open to the workings of the Spirit of God in his life, may in fact break through our ingenious attempts at commodifying his jarring words.

To claim Romero invites us to claim and love what he claimed and loved—the margins of society. To claim Romero invites, or perhaps demands, that we claim those outside of the acceptable boundaries of society.

The other night I was speaking with a local woman on the street and when I asked her about a solution to the gang problem, she jokingly said, “light the prisons on fire”—in other words, kill them all. While this may have been a light-hearted response, there is nothing light about the fact that while El Salvador has an enormous problem with gangs, these gang members are also human persons whom Romero invites us to embrace. After all, we can’t understand the history, emergence, and ongoing significance of the gangs without also understanding the multi-layered poverty that marks these lives. To claim Romero is to walk down a dangerous path of pilgrimage into the bowels of society where we come face to face with ourselves vis-à-vis the others we may not like.

Perhaps it is no accident that Romero’s name means “pilgrim” or someone on pilgrimage. If we claim to be “Romeristas,” as so many people on these Salvadoran streets are claiming these days, then we are claiming to be on a pilgrimage. But where are we going? Whom are we following? With whom are we journeying?

I hope that despite our efforts to commodify Romero’s message, we will be possessed by Romero’s spirit of pilgrimage and that the Spirit of God will drive us into the wilderness of our societies to become a holy and wholesome presence in the midst of all who are considered expendable or obstacles to our efficient systems of progress. Perhaps then we can say with more conviction that we have no part in the government or state that killed Romero. To claim such innocence would imply working and giving our lives like he did—following that Jewish man of Palestine whose jarring message captured his (and hopefully our) heart(s).

Photograph of a young Romero visiting a prison.  If it weren’t for the black cassock, he would blend in as simply one of the inmates. (Original located at the Museum of Word and Image)